Extramarital Affairs, Alien Invasions and the Afterlife: Strangeness and Heartbreak in Kevin Brockmeier’s The Ceiling
Writing subtle but poignant stories is no easy feat, unless one is committed to one aspect in particular: in other words, it is possible to hold back from your readers when writers concentrate on one element (characterization, setting, time) instead of them all, because the contrast is all the more heightened. A story that is all around vague and cryptic might end up being phenomenal in terms of atmosphere (and I happen to be a big advocate of atmosphere), but might not translate as well on paper as it does in cinematography or graphic novels (this is debatable, I'm sure).
Kevin Brockmeier’s The Ceiling does just that, balancing a bold, out-of place element in a nebulous environment, creating a story that is as striking as it is affecting. The short story is a perfect example of what I’ve come to consider magical realism: one that could be read twice, with parallel explanations. The first is usually explainable in slightly fantastical ways, with loose ends befitting the offbeat nature of the genre. The second interpretation is often much more realistic, the “magical” aspects being a rather general metaphor for much more palpable things: heartbreak, depression, drug addiction, family dysfunction. The parallel analyses of magical realism is one of the most freeing elements — from the perspective of a reader as well as a writer — because it allows for looser writing, narratives and characterization (without sacrificing quality, of course).
As such, this is how I read The Ceiling: in the first, purely magical sense, it is an atmospheric story about an unexplained occurrence. It almost reads like an insidious, deliberate alien invasion: an object appears in the sky and gets gradually closer as the inhabitants of the small town get increasingly worried and harried. Elements that contributed to the esoteric aspect of the story included the constantly shifting weather, like a looming presence, from the moment the story starts; Joshua, the wise and perceptive child of the protagonist; Bobby Nauman, his odd friend (whom we never really see); Melissa, the distant and frigid wife of the protagonist who, at times, seems to be “hearing the world from across a divide”, as if she were not human; the disappearing birds; Wesson, the barber whose pessimism sounds like premonition; the old man who appears out of nowhere, searching for his umbrella. When taken as a whole, Brockmeier’s tale is a strange one, and as is typical in magical realism, the ending leaves more questions than answers (who are these people? why has this happened? what will happen?).
The second reading of the short story was, perhaps, my favorite. In it, every strange occurrence can be explained by the characters’ own feelings of disillusionment and detachment from the world. Joshua is not clairvoyant, he is just a sensitive child who notices what others do not; Wesson is not a prophet, he is a grieving and lonely man who sees darkness and impending doom everywhere; Melissa is no alien, she is simply depressed and unhappy in her marriage; Bobby Nauman is just a strange child and will probably stay that way; the birds are disappearing because of environmental disturbances; and there is no “ceiling” descending on the world, it’s the sense of crushing existentialism and a crumbling marriage that is weighing on Melissa and her husband (for the protagonist, it could even be Heaven).
Despite being centered on events and the disquieting environment, The Ceiling is, first and foremost, about characters and their psyche. The author does not dwell on long and tedious details, nor does he explain their relationships in explicit and obvious ways. The way he writes his characters is almost impressionistic, with glimpses and hints peppered here and there. The protagonist, as well as his family, friends and acquaintances are shown through adjectives rather than actual descriptions: Bobby is “strange”, Chris is “rich”, Melissa is “[brittle]” and “[hesitant]”, Wesson’s eyes are “empty”. These flickers produce an interesting effect: from the little we get, we end up extrapolating and making a portrait of these characters. Bobby is probably distracted, unkempt, Chris could be his total opposite, Melissa appears captivating, but in a frail and tragic way, Wesson could be buoyant and bombastic on the inside, but with gloomy undertones. Joshua, from what little is said about him, is a very sharp and intelligent boy, underneath the typical veneer of a seven year-old. Another effect of this “impressionistic” view is that it leaves many elements open to interpretation, which only reinforces the fluid-seeming aura of the story. If this is what the author intends, it is an excellent method of doing so, and feels strikingly authentic: we are more interested in the personality of these characters and in the way they make each other feel (their interpersonal relationships) than what they look like.
I used to be very focused on making sure that my characters were conveyed to readers exactly the way they appeared for me, and it was a great source of anxiety (as all writers are wont to be concerned about transparency). But over the years, I gradually let go of that preoccupation, for different reasons. The first was that, as I mention for Brockmeier’s story, I shifted from physical descriptions to intrinsic ones, which made my stories much richer and much more relatable. The second, loosely tied to the first, was that the more I spoke about the protagonists and their personalities, the more natural it became to drop hints about their physical appearances: I could speak about the eyes from the start, because they were as expressive as the character’s extraversion. I could emphasize skin color in a story focused on ethnicity and heritage. I could hold off mentioning hair color until the very end, if at all, as a way to surprise readers (she’s a redhead? I saw her as a brunette…). The feedback I received could go either way: either my friends and family saw what I saw, in which case it validated me and my ability to convey my thoughts; either they did not, and I found it did not matter to me.
After all, the particularity of writing is that once it is released into the world and filtered through the perceptions of each, it no longer belongs to the writer, and that is a beautiful thing.